So, I end up sharing many of my tricks with people in person, in emails or facebook wall posts or whatever after I post cake pictures. I should note that nearly all of these tips and tricks came from the woman who taught me basic cake decorating. I own almost none of them. They could all very well be straight from a Wilton decorating book, but I don't own one and that's not where I learned them.
I'll have to do this in a couple of installments. This first one is super duper important because it gives you the base from which you start. If you start with a broken cake, you're going to be fighting a losing battle through the whole process. Later, I'll give you some tips for working through some of the problems you might encounter, but let's start by doing it right the first time, so we can avoid the problems.
This is the kind of start you want to your decorating.
No holes, no crumbs, no breakage; just nice crisp edges.
First thing: Prepping the cake pans. This is usually one of the first instructions in any cake recipe. Grease the pan. Grease and flour the pan. Put a layer of parchment on the bottom of the pan, whatever. I no longer obey the instructions on the cake recipe. Because I have a better answer: Dream Cream. It is magic. Here is the recipe:
1/2 cup shortening*
1/2 cup canola oil
1 cup flour
Mix them together thoroughly, until you get a nice smooth, creamy paste. I usually start by creaming the shortening, adding the flour and then the oil slowly. Store in the refrigerator for up to a respectable amount of time (I'm really loosey goosey about this and refuse to reveal how long I might store this in my fridge)... seriously, it's shortening, oil and all purpose unbleached flour. Do these things spoil?
Spread liberally on your pans, especially the corners. Then, when you turn your cake out of the pans onto the cooling racks, you should require no shaking, no knives, no hoping, nothing. You should be careful not to turn them over any distance from the cooling racks, because the cake should fall out of the pan and you don't want it damaged in a fall. In fact, I usually put my cooling rack upside down on top of the cake, hang onto both the cake pan & the cooling rack and turn them over. Lift off pan. Seriously. Dreamy.
The cake recipe. Since taking a little course in, what was it?... 2003? I've mostly just used cake mixes. Our instructor said she couldn't really make a cake for much cheaper than a boxed cake mix. And, well, Betty Crocker knows her cake. In the last year or so, I've ventured out to find cake recipes to make from scratch. This is my go-to chocolate cake recipe (except I omit the chocolate chips**). The frosting is good, too. The cake recipe is vegan (I think; unless there are hidden animal products in those other ingredients that I don't know about); the frosting is not (butter & milk). Something about making the cake from scratch makes me feel good. I like knowing what's in what we eat. That Chocolate Peanut Butter cake was good, too, but you should read my notes about it. The recipe as written is not as conducive to cake decorating because it's quite fragile. So, make a cake mix, make your own, whatever. Bake and learn.
I often bang the air bubbles out of my cake batter before I put it in the oven. If it looks all bubbly on the top, I gently shake and bang the cake pans on the counter to pop some of the air bubbles. I'm sure our basement neighbour loves this (too bad he never gets any cake). It makes a little denser cake, a little easier to work with and then you don't end up with big air pockets in your cake.
Actually baking the cake. Here is another part of the recipe I don't follow. Typical cake mix baking temperature is 350 degrees F. Unless you have a convection oven (which I don't, but I would love to have one. If you do have one, follow your awesome convection oven instructions...), pre-heat your oven to 300 degrees. Bake your cake at 300 degrees for 10 minutes, turn the oven up to 325 and bake for another 10 minutes, and finally turn the oven up to 350 and bake for the rest of the time recommended in the recipe. This helps your cake to bake more evenly and not peak in the centre. You'll have less to level off later.
After the cake is baked (insert a toothpick in the centre of the cake; it should come out clean), remove from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 15 minutes (set a timer). Then turn it out onto a cooling rack. Cool completely at least 1 hour. Turn it over so the top doesn't get too indented by the cooling rack. I like to bake the cake the night before and let it sit overnight. I cover it with a tea towel so it doesn't dry out.
As you can see here, I did not level this cake the way I outline below.
It was practically level when it came out, so I just pressed down it with my hand covered in a tea towel.
I read that tip somewhere on the Internet (sorry source I don't remember you).
Leveling the cake. Here's how you get that nice flat edge to your cakes: you cut the rounded top of the cake off and turn it up side down. If your cake has risen higher than your cake pan, put it back in the pan and run your longest serrated knife along the top of the cake pan to keep it level as you cut off the top of the cake. If it hasn't risen that high, you're going to have to eyeball it, or buy a fancy cake leveller/trifler (which I want to buy anyway, but I don't have one, so it's not like you must have one) to cut the top of the cake off. This is the best part of the cake. Snack on this while you decorate (or feed it to your kids to appease them while you put off making their dinner as you decorate a cake for someone else), ensuring you keep the crumbs far from your precious icing.
Well, that's it for this time. Hopefully the next installment won't take me too long. Happy baking!
*I have no answer for trans fats and cake decorating. ... sorry. That's the best I've got. I guess you could try a non-hydrogenated margarine, butter... or lard, I guess. I have never used those. One day they will ban trans fats altogether and what will all the cake decorators do?
**As much as I like real chocolate, chocolate chips are designed to retain their shape after baking. If you ate the cake warm, it would likely be very tasty and chocolatey, but if you ate it at room temperature or cold, you have cold chocolate chips in your cake. I don't like this. Besides, leveling the cake would remove a lot of the chocolate chips which, while tasty for the decorator's children, kind of defeats the purpose.